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May 1, 2008 at 9:49 AM

The Sexson question

Good for Mariners fans to see the calendar turn to the month of May, I’m sure. April was no treat, with the team going 13-15. A disappointment, to be certain. One thing to keep in mind, though it doesn’t totally excuse what’s gone on. That “soft” schedule the team supposedly had? Maybe not as soft as we thought. Seattle’s schedule was against teams that are now 18-11 (Angels), 17-12 (A’s), 15-12 (Orioles), 15-12 (Rays), 12-14 (Royals) and 9-18 (Rangers). So, only the Rangers were true patsies and the M’s faced them in just three games. They played the “best” teams in two series apiece. As I said, it doesn’t excuse everything because Seattle’s offense was still terrible. And some of those teams won’t be above .500 much longer. But still, it was not the cakewalk month it first appeared to be on paper.
Time for the team to start anew. May is usually when Ichiro kicks it into gear and he’s going to have to. April was not a typical Ichiro month. But he’s not the team’s worst problem. We saw some of those dealt with yesterday when Brad Wilkerson was shipped out, replaced by Wladimir Balentien, while Jose Vidro and Kenji Johjima stand to have some playing time cut by the arrival of Jeff Clement. Just how much time is cut will depend largely on what Vidro and Johjima do going forward.
My email inbox is getting flooded by your queries about when Richie Sexson is going to get the axe as well. Many of you are passionately pleading for a cut in his playing time. My answer is simple. No cuts for Sexson are coming anytime soon. And I can understand why.


First off, the problem presented by Sexson isn’t nearly as dramatic as with Wilkerson, Vidro and Johjima.
Once again, here’s a look at their park-weighted OPS+ numbers as of this morning. Remember, 100 is the league average baseline and anything above or below is the percentage higher or lower than average.
Wilkerson 84
Vidro 66
Johjima 29
Sexson 107
Wilkerson and Vidro play at power-hitting positions, so their numbers are awful. Johjima isn’t in a power-hitting spot, but his stat is beyond brutal. He is among the worst hitters in the game of baseball at any position, making the timing of his $24 million contract extension indefensible. Unless you’re about to pull the strings on a Ken Griffey Jr. trade this week. Right now, though, looking at the numbers, why would the Reds even think about it? Needs aside? It just looks real bad. We’ll stick to the theory this deal was ordered from the Japanese side of the ownership equation. But in a seven-week span that saw the team swallow $2 million on Horacio Ramirez (actually, to be fair, only a pro-rated portion of it that got swallowed), and $3 million on Wilkerson, all I can say is, those Garlic Fries at Safeco Field must be selling like hotcakes. Look, I don’t think Johjima is going to stay this bad for much longer, but couldn’t the team have held off on inking the deal until he did rebound? I mean, Clement was a first-round draft pick as a catcher. If you think Johjima is a better receiver, fine. But three more years? Right now? Anyway, I’ll move off that topic. Just me thinking out loud here.
Leaving salary out of it, Johjima is a black hole in the lineup. The numbers spell that out. Yes, he did block the plate in fine fashion last night. But a cement pylon would have done the same thing and probably hit for a better average (could probably deaden a few balls for bunts up the line, though would have trouble getting out of the box. Maybe Miguel Cairo could stand next to the pylon and pinch-run from home to first? Just an idea. Me trying to be funny and lighten things up).
Wilkerson was a black hole from a power perspective. His OPS doesn’t look as bad as Vidro’s but it was all singles driven. His slugging percentage, as I mentioned yesterday, was .304. That’s worse than the batting averages of some really good DH types.
Vidro’s OPS is terrible for a DH. No way around it. I blew out my fingers typing words in his defense over the winter and his second-half OPS last year was good enough to be a full-time DH without a problem. His overall numbers were not high enough, .300 batting average or not. This year, he has sacrificed on-base numbers and still doesn’t show enough power. He’s had a month. The way it’s looking now, the second half from last year was not representative of what he can do over a full season. If Vidro disagrees, hey, he can go out and prove it. He’s still here.
But bottom line? His numbers and Wilkerson’s could easily be improved upon by adding even a league average hitter to the mix. Balentien and Clement project to do better than that over their careers, so risking that they can be average in their rookie seasons is not much of a leap of faith.
Johjima, as I mentioned, could be outhit by a cement pylon (with Cairo running) right now. So, mixing some Clement at-bats in there as well does not hurt the team and possibly can give Johjima time to figure things out.
Sexson is not in the same ballpark as those guys.
Sorry, I know some of you dislike him. But he has not been as bad as some are making him out to be. When I mentioned his OPS yesterday, some of you leaped up and said it’s not good enough. I agree. I said as much yesterday when I pointed that out.
But, even though everyone can agree — even Sexson — that he needs to do more, this is not a problem that needs radical surgery just yet. Sexson’s OPS, as you saw above, is 7 percent higher than what a league average hitter brings to the table. So, replacing him right off the bat is not going to guarantee you success.
The Mariners last year had only a handful of hitters with an OPS+ higher than 107. Jose Guillen, who most of you loved and respected, was only at 116. Same thing this year, with only two Mariners, Raul Ibanez and Adrian Beltre, higher than 107. They are significantly higher, yes, and Sexson needs to get more into Guillen’s 2007 territory to help this offense be minimally effective. But he’s not that far off.
In fact, looking at the raw numbers, he’s on pace for a 30-homer season. How many M’s hit 30 homers last season? Zero. We can debate the merits of the emptiness of his home runs another day. Right now, 30-homer power is a rare commodity on this team. The M’s just rid themselves of a right fielder who had no homers in an entire month. Sexson is not at that drag down level. Not even close.
His past three seasons in Seattle have seen slow April starts. For me, the trick now is to figure out whether Sexson can improve going forward. From what I’ve seen, unlike last year, he can. I like the approach he’s taken at the plate. He does not seem lost like in 2007. He goes up there with a plan, works the counts and tries to get his pitch. Yes, he’ll swing and miss at balls low and away. That’s not going to change overnight. But he’s also on-pace to draw 89 walks and strikeout 167 times. Those are the exact numbers he put up in those categories in 2005, when he hit .263 with 39 homers and a .910 OPS.
Not saying he’ll repeat those lofty totals. But for me, the walks-strikeouts ratio is an encouraging sign. His numbers on the road, hitting .283 with an OPS of 1.019 are also encouraging. We can all see — and he admits — that he puts too much pressure on himself at home. Once he eases up, in theory, his numbers should come up. Because his road stats are excellent.
I know that some of you are going to scream “small sample size!” on some of the numbers and you will be right. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say the sample size is big enough to axe Wilkerson and cut the playing time of Vidro and Johjima, but argue that it’s too small to spot encouraging signs for Sexson. Well, you can try, but I won’t let you. You can’t say Sexson stinks because his April OPS is too low but then ignore the positive aspects because of sample size. It’s a game we like to play in the blogosphere, but teams in the real world won’t use the logic to base decisions on.
The logic here states that Sexson, while not producing nearly enough as a first baseman overall, is still one of the better offensive producers on his team at this very moment. Maybe not for his position, but overall, on this offensively weak team, he is one of your better hitters.
And there are only so many surgical cuts a team can make before losing the patient. Bringing in two youngsters like the M’s did yesterday was a bold move. But it makes sense, because they are literally guaranteed to provide improvement simply by standing in the batters’ box and breathing.
With Sexson, it would take much higher numbers to improve upon what he’s done. And even then, for what kind of improvement? For an OPS+ of 110 versus 107? Think that will make a huge difference? It will not. And by benching Sexson now, you lose the opportunity to see if he can turn his good peripheral numbers into better overall production.
Too big a gamble for me and not worth it. Not right now.
You can talk in theory about getting another left fielder and moving Raul Ibanez to first base. More radical surgery when the team just did some yesterday. Perhaps, down the road, that approach will be needed and taken. Right now, Sexson is not nearly as bad a problem as this team’s other trouble spots. You deal with those first, let the scars heal, then see if the Sexson question still exists another month or so down the road.

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